“Sharing on Halloween”

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We have been handing out candy tonight to a bevy of all ethnicities of kids from our neighborhood. They have been unfailingly polite. It reminds me of the importance of living in a town that reflects the diversity of our nation. Anyone who opened their door this evening to these little costumed kids would be hard pressed to continue to harbor fear of what our nation is becoming!

My Halloween was markedly different since we went on our own, not with our parents. But as self centered as our candy collecting was, we were also participating in a penny drive for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund. We had rinsed out one of our milk cartons and pasted a UNICEF label on it. Later we used the little cardboard boxes shown above. Each year our whole class would assemble our containers. We asked for pennies after we asked for candy. As the above image says “1 penny buys 5 cartons of milk.” We pooled all our money at school, delighted with how much we had jointly obtained.

Kids learn values by doing. We learned that there were kids around the world who needed help. We were shown that by simply collecting pennies as we collected candy we could help them. We were proud to play a part. We were learning about our responsibility to children we would never meet. It’s a lesson I never forgot.

“Legacy?”

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Life preservers protect children(and grandmothers)from unexpected boat accidents. We take care to keep our children safe. Yet so many people from my very large post-War generation are reckless about what we are leaving these same children. I recently saw a large recreational vehicle proudly displaying a bumper sticker which said:”We Are Spending Our Children’s Inheritance.” What message underlies that sticker? And how true it seems sometimes in the larger picture.

My generation has a responsibility to the ones that come after us. Our parents and grandparents had no doubt about values and traditions they wanted to impart. They accepted the title of “elder” willingly instead of trying to pretend that they were “only as old as you feel,” implying that old age is an emotion rather than a reality. Somehow many of my peers are failing to take up the mantle left us by the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Perhaps giving it that moniker left the impression that we could never live up, so why try.

Instead of buying more toys (bumper sticker “He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins”) we need to focus on what we owe those who come after us. I am not sure what that will look like, but I am eager to find out. Right now I take encouragement from a friend, a retired optician, who discovered his skills were desperately needed in Haiti. He joined a team which went there and he spent the day fitting donated glasses. He told me of the joy of a grandmother who only wanted to be able to see to thread a needle. Simple for him with his years of experience, life changing for her.

I am looking forward to seeing how our collective wisdom and experience can benefit the world around us. Too little depends on the political leadership. The rest depends on us.

“Me First”

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Yesterday I took my granddaughter shopping for boots at our local independent shoe store. She has specific needs to fit her feet, and we always go there for the service they provide. Needless to say, most of the customers have particular needs and waiting on them takes a little time. We know that we will get the same attention when it is our turn.

I asked our favorite sales woman how she was. She said she was stressed by the customers “who had changed” from her original time with the store. When I asked why, she just repeated that they “had changed.” But watching her deal with two other customers I was able to see what she meant. The other two acted as if they alone were present and that they alone should be getting service at all times. This despite the obvious, that our sales woman was serving us also.

On the way home my granddaughter chatted with me about what I thought about what our friend had said at the store. I told her that many people are pretty selfish. I suggested that you may have to be taught to share and to recognize that others exist. Current American consumer culture constantly suggests that “you” are our only concern, that “you come first,” and that “you(the customer) are always right.” It is very easy to absorb this message and take it with you when you go to a store. What counter balance might there be? Once you are out of school, who reminds you to share? No wonder the internet is full of “selfies,” pictures one takes on oneself. Who needs other people? We can live in a world where we are “#1.” But as the old song said, “one is the loneliest number.”

“Choice Words”

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I talked early, read early, and wrote early, though never legibly! So words fascinate me, especially the difference between their connotative and denotative meanings. A word can denote a fact, such as a chair. But the word chair may also have specific connotations or associations for a particular person. A convict on death row would hear the word “chair” with chills while a tired mom might hear the word “chair” as a welcome relief.

A key way that writers, speakers and public figures can affect the perception of hearers and listeners is to be very conscious of this difference and shape their rhetoric accordingly. For instance, it is a fact that the United States Congress passed a bill called “The Affordable Care Act.” But consider the connotations of the words “affordable” and “care.” Both sound quite promising and are able to give a warm feeling to anyone who sees them regardless of the actual details of the Act. So opponents of this bill began to rename it “Obamacare.” Since somewhere around half of the U.S. population had negative feelings about President Obama, this word shift cleverly changed the reception of the Act. Suddenly many people who didn’t like the President didn’t like the Act, including those who had supported it with its previous name. The discussion went from being a disagreement about the details of the bill to a disagreement about the President.

In a similar way, doctors in the United States wanted to be paid from Medicare(the senior health plan here) to have conversations with their terminally ill patients. They wanted to be paid to take the time to thoughtfully plan what each patient desired for end of life care. None of these included “doctor assisted” suicide. Regrettably, one politician renamed these discussions “death panels.” Unsurprisingly, the Congress dropped the discussion wanting to avoid seeming to favor “death panels” which would supposedly decide who would die. Clever word choice changed the conversation completely.

We need to pay attention to word choice. If you are having an emotional response to what you hear, think about how words are shaping your reaction. And how might stating it differently change your response even as the facts remain the same?

“Spin or Lies?”

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In politics in the United States we are used to spin, the public relations behavior of making oneself look good. If I say I worked with others on this project, making it sound as though it were a collaboration, but I really did most of the work myself, I would be putting a spin on the situation. I would want people to think I worked well with others. I wouldn’t be precisely lying, but shaping the narrative to my advantage. I think that for many years voters have been alert to this common kind of spin.

However, there lately has been a proliferation of outright lies. If I say I worked on the project but I was never anywhere near it, I would be lying. If I said I had voted for something that I had actually voted against, I would be lying. I think the general population is not accustomed to this degree of lying. And I call to mind a quote from Tennessee Williams in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof: “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity!” The problem with a bad odor is that after a while one gets accustomed to it. Here we seem to be accepting that politicians are outright lying, no longer just putting a favorable spin on things. More troubling still, those media outlets that call out politicians on their lies are faced with the “ad hominem” fallacy discussed yesterday. They are now labeled “false news.”

I hope that despite being attacked for speaking and writing the truth, people will continue to speak “truth to power.” There is too much at stake to get accustomed to that rotten smell.

“Ad Nauseam”

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When I taught English Composition, one of the central topics was the use of logical fallacies. We discussed many of them, why they are illogical, why to avoid them in argumentative essays, and how to recognize them. The United States national election occurs on November 6, in two weeks. At that time, while we don’t elect a President, all of the House of Representatives, many Senators and many local officials including Governors are up for election. In the spirit of the times, I am taking a bit to explain logical fallacies. I hope that at least you can yell the fallacy back at the television instead of vaguely wondering why you are so bothered by the ad.

The “ad hominem” fallacy runs rampant throughout the current American political scene. It’s so ubiquitous that many of us may have overlooked its failure to address the question at hand. We all practiced the fallacy in grade school when we called one another “stupid poo-poo heads” when we didn’t agree with them, particularly around rules for board games that were allowing them to win. The attack on the person, the translation of the Latin phrase, substituted then and now for a rational reason for disagreeing. “He’s an idiot.”(Not “I strongly disagree with his economic policy and would prefer(here insert an opposing idea.”) This is challenging because you actually have to think rather than just name call.

Pay attention to the next five tweets from the President of the United States or the politician of your choice. See if you can identify any “ad hominem” arguments. Don’t worry. You won’t have to stay up past your bed time to find them!

“Free Speech?”

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Continuing on my reflections from reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt(2018) I am remembering a student I taught a number of years ago. She had grown up in the then Yugoslavia and described life there under Tito. She told me that his picture hung in every classroom, that they showed him honor each morning, that she was to tell her teacher if she heard anyone saying anything negative about him(including her family) and that she knew nothing negative about him until she emigrated to the United States. Tito controlled information by letting her hear only what he wanted her to hear as a school pupil. She said she didn’t even know how to think about another point of view since he controlled hers.

A similar trend is happening on many private liberal arts campuses in the United States today. Campus speakers are shouted down, barred from appearances and anyone hosting them is shunned and denigrated. Why? Because the ideas that the speaker is espousing are considered “dangerous” and “unsafe.” The definition of safety has been enlarged to encompass “intellectual safety,” not just physical safety. A number of students believe they will be “damaged” by hearing, reading or discussing things that distress them. Students protest that certain texts are “triggering” since they distress them. I understand actual triggering. A veteran I once taught asked privately to be excused from discussing the poetry of the World War I poets because they evoked too strong emotions. But he didn’t ask that I stop teaching the poems and he was willing to share his actual combat experience with the class.

It appears that some students protected from conflict on the playground and throughout their elementary education are afraid of the distress that literature, speakers, history and political discussion provokes in them. They have bought the idea that they are fragile. I see college as the ideal place to deal with conflicting viewpoints, even ones I find abhorrent. I don’t support actual violence, of course. But I believe ignorance is more dangerous than knowledge, even knowledge I would rather not have. And what on earth will these students do after graduation when they meet the rest of the world?

“Childhood Scrapes?”

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When I was in first grade, my friend Norman and I were playing in his wooded back yard. His mother was busy in the house and had left us happily alone. Norman insisted that he knew how to fly. To prove it, he climbed up on their garden shed and jumped off with his arms extended winglike to the sky.

I learned that Norman didn’t know how to fly. His mother learned that he needed to be taken to the doctor to have his broken arm repaired. No one learned that we shouldn’t have been allowed to play alone in the back yard. Why? Because while no one wanted their kids to get hurt playing, most people I knew assumed that all kids get hurt at some time or another. It was, they believed, part of a normal childhood. I didn’t know a child who at some point hadn’t broken a limb, gotten stitches, chipped a tooth, or scarred some part of their body.

I truly appreciate seat belts, bike helmets, polio vaccines, childproof medicine bottle caps, antibiotics and pedestrian activated walk signs. None of these existed in my childhood and grievous harm came to children without these modern inventions. Still, I shudder at the overprotective  approach many parents have about their children’s safety. The book I mentioned yesterday, The Coddling of the American Mind, stresses the damage this kind of parenting does to developing children. They come to see the world as a dangerous place, made safe for them by their parents or other adults, with no chance to learn to look out for their own well being. Children become brave by confronting danger. Not life-threatening danger, but run of the mill challenges. They fall and get scraped and get up and try again without their parents standing over them warning them at every turn.

“Fragile or Coddled?”

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Taking a break from retail for a bit to comment on a fascinating book I just finished reading: The Coddling of the American Mind:How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, copyright 2018 by Penguin Press. If you have been as perplexed as I have been about some goings on at college campuses in the last few years, the book provides some explanations.

I retired from a private college in 2001 and after that worked in a large public community college. The last year I taught in the private college, an irate parent came into my workplace and began yelling at me about a grade I had given her absentee daughter. Because the girl had not handed in a paper, I had given her an F. This had been my practice for 25 years. But what had never happened to me before was to have a parent confront me about it. I was truly startled as I couldn’t fathom why a parent was involved. Worse yet, the administration didn’t support me, but asked me to give the girl a D for her final grade rather than the F she deserved. I replied that in that case, I would raise every other student’s grade one level so that they got the same treatment she was getting. As it turned out, before I had to do that, all the other teachers failed her, so my grade was in line with the others.

But Lukianoff and Haidt introduced me to the concept of the “fragile college student,” long protected from distress by her parents. And they introduced me to the concept now held by many college administrators that the student is a consumer, not the learner that the professors assume.

More tomorrow.